The Woman Who Ate Money: A Parable for Our Times

This is a true story, strange and believable and simple, the way only the truth is. And this is also a story of genius, I mean, a story of someone about whom it could be said—she was a genius—that is, if you’re prepared to call someone a genius who came up with the solution to a problem which has been plaguing the rich since people first began accumulating wealth. A problem, you see, of no small significance. Personally, I think it’s a dandy and it goes to prove that amazing things happen all around us. It requires will, focus, attention to detail and good, sound, problemsolving skills which in this case were in part the result of a degree in Domestic Sciences, which shows you the value of an education, and that often the most valuable lessons learned are those close to home, around which the Domestic Sciences do turn.

This is information which will be much sought-after and its importance and delivery warrant an appropriate lead-in, which requires going back to the beginning because something in this beginning may give us a clue to the spark of genius which allowed this particular woman to come up with this remarkable solution. I wasn’t there but I picture her as a child, a girl of five or six, hair in ringlets looking like Shirley Temple, an exact replica, a round, short-jawed kind of face, symmetrical and evenly pleasing, blue, blue eyes, always blue except when she was angered and then she’d be her own little thundercloud and her eyes would turn grey, and lips nicely pink, the mouth small and well-defined and nice stocky legs, straight and solid, and short plump arms like small chicken drumsticks, and all the sureness and knowledge of little Shirley Temple.

Patent leather toes and ringlets shone and turned and glittered and danced so she was shiny black at her toes and her top, and between—just plump and pink and perfect. And if she was just exactly the same as Shirley Temple then maybe she did also tap dance because it does complete this part of the picture in telling what a perfectly adorable child she’d been. And from this perfect beginning is her entitlement, which may have been the early spark or flicker of the achievement which was to follow.

She had sisters, who were also clever and lovely but not so lovely as she, and she was clever enough to have been born last and therefore was always youngest, which is the best thing to be. Without doubt all three girls were dressed with care, but for this story what interests us is the wardrobe of the youngest, dearest sister and we learned from her own pink adult lips that as a child she only wore outfits, which would have meant English felted wool coats and matching bonnets, later little coats with two rows of buttons and matching broad-brimmed hats. It would have meant a rose-coloured wool crêpe dress nicely smocked and a short, pearl-buttoned, rose wool sweater over top; and it would have made absolutely necessary angora tams and mittens, leather shoes and purses, coats with rabbit cuffs, muff and collars, moving in glory to adolescence and fox at neck and wrist and hem and hat.

Dressing in sets established for this young woman an orderly way of positioning herself in the world and she came to recognize early on that things that matched created order and harmony and these became the ideals which would shape her life. She may have recognized this when very young, which speaks further to her character and may have been a clue to the extraordinary achievement of her later life. Few people, outside of experiencing a religious epiphany to direct them, find a clearly marked path and few find the path unswerving. Ramona, which is her name, did see this path. Untroubled by further questing, then, her eyes could be clear and blue.

Everything, in pursuit of order and harmony, must match and while still a very young woman in her parents’ home she would take girlfriends, with pleasure and confidence, up to her bright tidy bedroom, her room at the front of the house which looked out to the green lawn and edged garden of the house in which she lived, to the boulevard before the house and the concrete street curb along which all her beaus and suitors would park their fathers’ cars and later their own, because a worthy man must own some things. She would take them to her room and put her soft, groomed hand on the faceted knob of the closet door, pause for a moment to indicate importance and with a small nod of her head to reinforce certitude, would open the door, press it back against the wall and there, for those other young women who were drawn to Ramona because she had about her the sense of knowing where life would lead her, she would display the contents of her closet. Here, she indicated, to anyone able to read what was evident, was a lesson to be learned. On a high shelf, but not too high, running the width of the closet were, left to right, hat boxes, hat stands and purses placed sideways to be read for colour and material like the spines of a book on a library shelf. Below the shelf, left to right were blouses, grouped by colour, then suit jackets followed by their skirts, then dresses ranked daytime to evening-wear, all left to right. At the bottom of the closet on a shelf raised four inches from the floor were the small shoes corresponding to the purses on the shelf above. On the floor beneath the coloured shoes were her dear little house slippers, three kinds, one pair fuzzy and cozy and flat, one pair silk mules with marabou on the toes and one embroidered silk Chinese flip-flops which matched silk pyjamas with braided closures and covered buttons, for at-homes.

The even blue eyes, the glossy black hair, the straight pink mouth, and now her strong white, adult teeth, the sturdiness of her gait and the confidence of a path chosen also drew young men who’d themselves barely left being mothered, to this young woman who looked to have, already, all the secrets they knew their mothers had acquired. They came in droves, in squadrons, these young men in their fathers’ cars, then slightly older young men, beginning to set out for themselves, in their own cars. They pulled up to the curb and walked up the sidewalk to the front steps to rap on the door, to look into her eyes so they could find the path she saw so clearly. What they wished, those who came for visit after visit, was to find their dry rugged hand enfolded in her soft groomed hands and to move beside her, her leading gently, along the clearly marked walk that life meant them to follow. Which one would she chose? Who would contain within his swelling heart the sight, the very private sight, the spectacle, indeed, of Ramona, performing only for him, a brief and smartly paced curl-bouncing, saved-for-the-privacy-of-marriage, carefully choreographed and performed-only-rarely tap dance? Because that in fact did happen, you know. Ramona did, later, on certain special rewarding occasions, tap dance in the kitchen of the marital home, on the shiny linoleum floor. She clicked and snapped and kept up a good tempo and she sang too, accompanying her feet with a song she’d learned from a record she’d played on the phonograph in the living room of her parents’ house where she had been a girl.

When she finally did choose it surprised no one, in that she’d selected one from among many and while for each, his own story was unique, seen in a group any of the young men with their own cars would have appeared as appropriate or likely as any other. That was because they all manifested certain basic characteristics. Understandably, each had to be well on his way to being able to provide and owning a car was only the most evident indication of this; each must promise stability and here family background was significant—no nervousness, no philandering, absolutely nothing in a history about which one couldn’t speak openly, and the solid financial prospects already mentioned. Then there were other indicators which Ramona sensed were relevant without coming right out and saying it. For instance, it was just as well if the seriously considered suitor didn’t come from an overly large family for a number of reasons. One was that it implied a lack of control, a certain slackness, having too many children. Then there was the issue of intrusion— all that family clamouring for attention when it was clearly to be focused on her, upon marriage. That was, after all, one of things you were entirely right to expect. Also, just how often would an overly large family expect to be invited to visit and if it were to be for meals what about the size of the dining room table, the number of chairs, the china, the flatware, the stemware. Ultimately she expected to be able to seat 12 or 16 if necessary, on occasion, and there would be the house with the dining room that would accommodate all of that with ease. But plans were not made to be overlooked and her plan was to begin in a small, well-situated bungalow with a lovely bright dining room where she could graciously practise entertaining a perfect cozy six for dinner, maybe stretching to eight before they moved to the larger stately, gracious home that would suit the maturing young matron she intended to be. So a man, entering marriage, trailing an over-large, unruly mob of a family was strongly advised to make no further emotional investment. Ramona had other ideas too. They had to do with physical attributes. She didn’t care for hairy men. She actually fancied fair hair, for its own sake and because it set off her own. She also felt a tall man looked better in a suit coat and suit coats were preferred for most occasions. She herself had a preference for the cool tones and was uneasy in the company of men who wore plaid, or checks or even tweed and couldn’t say why but in thinking back never really enjoyed an evening in the company of men who wore brown. Music was another thing. She liked the occasional dance when it was called for but an avid interest in music, she believed, signalled an overly sensitive nature and a man who was high-strung might later be found to have difficulty following a clear unswerving path.

Having to be vigilant this way was a burden whose weight Ramona felt across her rather narrow shoulders and in those rare situations when she found herself alone she’d feel a little shrug, a barely noticeable shudder in her upper body, then she’d bravely soldier on. Everyone admired her smooth brow which represented her clear sense of a path chosen and when she needed reassurance, she’d take from her small leather purse a little silver compact with her initials engraved in a flourish on its case, a birthday gift from a beau who’d moved on, and she’d press it open with one firm thumb and she’d read her own brow to be assured. There it would be, smooth and rounded, pale and unmarked and from its implacable, unwavering surface she’d draw a solipsistic comfort. All was well. Bear up, dear, she’d whisper and click the silver case shut.

It was a relief then, to make the right choice and have it all over and just beginning, at the same time. Now there was work to be done. She could trust her mother with the wedding, after all, wasn’t it she who’d been the first to provide the sets and outfits, and her sisters would also know what was necessary. And as glorious and momentous and singular as the event would be, for her and for everyone invited, the real event, she rightly recognized, began post-nuptially. Don’t be vulgar or unnecessary. Don’t dwell and be lewd. Order and harmony, the goals for a life. Everything must contribute to order and harmony and she began with her china. Then she chose silver, crystal and the accompanying objects guests could be expected to purchase as gifts. What wasn’t received in that manner she would buy discretely, by herself, right away. Gaps were ugly, unfortunate, jarring. Everything should be complete. A cheery kitchen set, all the pots and lids and roasters and ladles and lifters and strainers and linens and rugs and lamps and sofa and chairs and side tables, end tables, dinette set and dining suite and headboard and bedstead and dressers, night tables, dressing table and slipper chair and curtains and drapes and fixtures and appliances and broom and sweeper and pails and dustpans and dish drain and tea towels and everything delivered at once to the white stuccoed bungalow with the leaded glass window and matching twin gables and landscaped front garden.

Ramona had acquitted herself well in university. She’d been courted by the two appropriate sororities, had been rushed, wooed and won by the group which had been her first choice. She’d enjoyed the attention but not given it more importance than it warranted; she’d known there’d be a place for her—who, after all, looked better in a cherry red angora sweater? She could also learn a catchy, rhymed cheer for home games and shout it out when necessary. The classes required to complete her degree in Domestic Sciences were not unduly taxing and the scale and range of the information seemed familiar and sensible to her. She moved from year to year with grace and ease and chose for her final year’s project chocolate cake which would allow her to demonstrate an understanding of chemistry, physics and nutrition. She wrote up the experiments she’d conducted over the year, explaining the properties of cocoa versus melted whole chocolate, sour cream versus buttermilk, butter or vegetable shortening, layers or a cake baked in a tube pan. Frostings, fillings, toppings became Appendix A and diagrams and photographs shot with a coin to indicate height completed Appendix B. She graduated in the upper third of her class and had at the end, what she liked to refer to as “the recipe for success.” Who, after all, wouldn’t enjoy chocolate cake?

The afternoon of graduating exercises, after it was all done and her family had joined other families for punch and sweets and photographs and hugs and had returned home, Ramona, alone in her bedroom had time, just barely, she noted after checking the lovely little gold watch with the black silk band her parents had given her early in the day, to sit for a moment on the edge of her bed and reflect, more flicker than deep reflection, since there was just a moment before dressing for dinner, on where she was and what was ahead. This was, after all, the right time for assessments. One milestone passed, another to be reached.

Husband selected, engagement ring in its place, university completed, wedding ahead. And she’d enjoyed the doing, had done it all well. She made it seem effortless, that was her gift. But nothing, she knew, just happened. Everything was planned and structured and now here she was on the threshold, the lintel, the very doorway to her future. With the directing, ordering and organization of her own house, their house, she felt she’d really, finally, come into her own and once again—the value of an education, the right choice of mate, the wisdom of following a course were all reaffirmed. She bathed and powdered and dressed for dinner. Nothing was nicer than chiffon if the evening provided a gentle breeze; a display of movement without the necessity to actually dance. Except at their wedding, which she did with skill and poise, a lovely bride, a wedding in peach, gladioli in season, her sisters performing well, her mother not omitting a single detail, her father as proud as he had every right to be.

After the wedding there was a trip, at the conclusion of which, they would move directly into their lovely house. She couldn’t wait—no need for a protracted honeymoon. Unpacking and placing, arranging and sorting the earlier mentioned items was as gratifying as anything she’d done. Now, not one closet but an entire houseful. And they were happy. As she’d planned, the dining room seated six, occasionally eight and everyone loved chocolate cake. In time it became apparent that seating eight was no longer sufficient and a builder was engaged for their second and final home. And a child had been born, a son, sunny and fair, his father’s hair, his mother’s blue eyes.

Ramona was busier and busier than she’d really expected to be. Now they were three to be dressed and matched and tidied and new, bigger things and more, to fill and order the new house—more closets and cupboards and shelves. But personal growth never abandoned Ramona and she was able to enter with ease, each new era of mechanical household devices and improvements. She was first to own an automatic juicer, first to use an electric broom between thorough cleaning days, for which the appropriate skilled help was engaged. And not so rigid nor set in her ways as to be constrained by her professional training, she embraced each new culinary shortcut as it was introduced and her kitchen hummed with modernity. First, among all her friends to use instant mashed potato flakes, frozen pie shells, bottled thematic salad dressings. First to be creative with prepared foods, using grape jelly in a sauce for meatballs, ginger ale as a glaze for roasted meat, cream of mushroom soup as a binder in casseroles, crushed cornflakes as a carapace for chicken. Quick and snappy and smart, gustatory metaphors for the brief and infrequent tapdance spectacles she’d abandoned a few years into their happy, charmed marriage.

And what good fortune, a second son, also blue-eyed but this time with dark hair and more like his mother than anyone would have thought a son could be. They were shiny and prospered. They were pleased and welcome everywhere, their orderly life a beacon and an example for everyone whose lives they touched. And the sons grew and married and if their choices weren’t just what Ramona would herself have made for them, now she was modern enough to say often that you could only provide an example and then let them be.

Because she’d set out on a course, when things unfolded according to plan she did nothing more than nod in satisfied recognition of everything as it should be. There were, therefore, few surprises. But what did surprise even Ramona of the anticipated deed, Ramona of the ordered cupboard, Ramona of the matching sets, was the extraordinary level of her husband’s material success. He had become rich. Beyond what was needed, beyond any number of bone-china settings for twelve or sterling flatware the same, or mink or chinchilla or diamond solitaire or winter vacations, or redecorated houses or add-ons or built-ins. His wealth was such that with the children married and out of the house and the house already done and redone and done again so that it no longer knew its own original substantial self, the wealth became an element, a party to be considered and no longer just an agent.

How would they spend it, save it, protect it? The sons had some, their wives had some; but all of them discovered that like eating salted peanuts, some wants more. Still, there was enough, more than enough. It became its own benign fungus, growing, spreading, pecuniary spores fecund with increase. If increasing, it must be organic, if organic, then alive, if alive, then in need of protection. They cared for their money, Ramona and her tall husband. They were committed to it; it gave them pleasure. In turn they would insure its wellbeing.

As the money grew, the demands of the blue-eyed sons and their blue wives grew. More, they said, give us more, we need more, and Ramona and her husband did give them more, more than enough, which was almost enough. Now Ramona’s clear brow wrinkled and drew smooth and wrinkled again and she worried about the path that led to the future and whether she could still see to its end and plan as she needed. How would they care for their wealth which gave them such pleasure? What should they do with it all at the end?

A terrible thing happened to Ramona. No looking forward or planning or organizing could have anticipated or forestalled what happened next. It was this way and as sudden. One day Ramona’s husband was well and earning, the next day he was diagnosed and dying. Again, as it was when she was a very young woman, it was necessary that Ramona have plans, that she have a firm sense of the path and that she and her husband walk its clear, well-marked route. Now he counted on her; she would carry it on her little shoulders just a little plumper than they’d been when first she’d squared them, but just as sturdy.

What shall we do with our wonderful wealth? How can we bear to leave it and go? Ramona, what shall we do to press it close, keep it near? Hush, she told him, we’ll have it always, we won’t be parted, leave it to me, and he died easy.

It was a difficult time for Ramona, a time of disquiet. An essential set had been dismantled— a right shoe, the left glove, the salt of the silver shakers had been misplaced with a finality that all the wanting and buying couldn’t fix. For a dark period she even questioned the efficacy of planning. The mirror of her silver compact gave back no comfort, the ordered closets lost their authority. Even a rose-coloured cashmere sweater set failed to warm Ramona who couldn’t have anticipated the random and unreasonable finality of untimely death. Her faith in order and planning was shaken and for the first time she was without direction.

Her sons were solicitous, their wives attentive. Was she well? lonely? would she like to come out for a meal? a drive? would she like help with her banking? help with her money?

Help with her money? Her money. Giving herself a quick shake, like a smart corgi, Ramona came suddenly alert. What could she have thought, her life having no direction—there was the money to manage and as she’d done with everything from the time she was a girl she’d make splendid order once again. She had promised her tall husband she’d care for their money, she’d plan until she joined him, she’d manage it all.

What she’d learned from death’s mean lesson was that it was careless of her plans and outside her dominion, that it failed to hear the quick stamp of her emphatic foot, the pewter tone in her demands, that it was unmindful of the lowering sky in her eyes when displeasure darkened them. She’d work around it; she’d be quicker and just as resolute.

Here was the problem. She and her fine, tall, very rich husband had so dearly loved their money and had never wanted to be separate from it. This was the problem referred to at the outset in describing Ramona as a genius because, as astonishing as it may seem, Ramona had, after some very focused and deliberate attention come up with the solution to a problem which has plagued rich people since their status was first apparent to them. That is, since death is wretchedly inevitable and wealth is so wonderfully pleasant how was it possible for wealth to be transcendent? It must be taken with. The corpse and funds, the essence and the resources must be one at the end and for all time.

And here was Ramona, dear, small Ramona with the answer. Money must be consumed, subsumed into the body, one with bone and tissue. Made flesh. In short—eaten. How fortuitous, what wonderful good luck, what splendid fine planning that Ramona had available to her the necessary professional training. Her degree in Domestic Sciences would serve her well to the end and with it she’d become truly creative, preparing dishes that would allow her to enrich herself in a meaningful twofold manner—firstly as a tasty meal and secondly as the ultimate repository for the accumulated wealth, but she must act directly.

In the absence of a known timeframe she must consume the largest amount in the briefest time. She’d know when to stop— that didn’t worry her. If a surplus were left as she neared the end—whenever that might be, either she’d spend it in the usual manner or her sons would inherit the balance. It was the bulk of the money her husband had left in her charge that was the problem.

She’d always liked the look of the thousand-dollar bill, so orange and fresh and crisp. She’d use only those—for efficiency and aesthetics—brand new thousand-dollar bills. Now—how to prepare them? Slow cooking with the addition of some liquid, rapid deep-frying at high temperatures, and clever sauces to disguise whatever chemical additions may have been made to the paper bills to ensure their stability. At her very tidy kitchen desk where she sat to write shopping lists, pay household accounts, record recipes and organize dinner parties, Ramona sat, pen in hand to list the dishes she would cook that would allow her to implement her plan. Nothing minced, ground or frappéed. Things in layers. Let’s see: lasagne, fillet of sole rolled around a lemon hollandaise and held with toothpicks. She turned the pages of the cookbooks her daughters-in-law had given her over the years—books with food from different countries, menus that reflected a contemporary, international attitude to diet. Moussaka, blini, huevos rancheros, spring rolls, spanakopita. She grew dizzy with exotic possibilities. She’d start with sole, lovely accommodating flat fish.

To begin she must visit the bank and see her very nice bank manager, that young man who was doing so well, moving up, so polite. Too bad he wore brown.

“Fifteen one-thousand dollar bills, all new,” she told him, ‘‘I’ll need 15 today, 15 next Friday and 15 on each Friday unless otherwise indicated. All new, absolutely new. Thanks so much.” Then to the fish counter of the supermarket for one pound of sole, then lemons, eggs, and broccoli as a side dish.

Now here’s where training counts. Ramona selected three bills, being a first effort, and placed them in a flat 8 x 8” Pyrex dish, covering them in milk to soften and remove any impurities, then placed them in the fridge where they rested overnight. In the morning she’d make the hollandaise and instead of rolls she’d layer the sole with the hollandaise and the bills alternating until sole and bills were used up, finishing with a layer of sauce. Into the oven to cook at three-hundred degrees for 45 minutes. One must be careful with fish. Her heart raced. To calm herself she set a very nice table. A pink linen placemat, sterling flatware, a white rose in the silver bud vase and white wine, one glass. A toast to the future.

The knife sliced through the layered food with ease. Soaking in milk had weakened the fibres of fish and bills. Other than a slight papery resistance nothing unusual could be detected, and Ramona had good teeth. One thing, on the second bite something adhered to the roof of her mouth which she delicately disengaged with the manicured point of one little fingernail. She recognized the metallic disk embedded into every bill. She’d have to remove them before cooking. Made just the slightest bit giddy by the glass of wine and her wonderful sense of accomplishment Ramona felt happy for the first time since her husband’s passing.

Since he’d died Ramona had made a practice of eating her evening meal with company—other widows, or couples with whom she and her husband had been friendly, or widowers—old friends whose wives had departed early, or a mix of the gang left behind—couples and bereft singles all seeking consolation in the familiar. These evenings made Ramona uneasy and this unease confused her. After all, these were people whom she’d known all her adult life and indeed some of these dinner mates had even been childhood friends. Was she hanging on over-long to grief? Was she allowing herself to become morbid? Grieving, if it was sustained, was unbecoming, verging on the showy and there had never been that, about her. Then she realized that so many of her friends, now alone, were all unmatched parts of incomplete sets. For her they were dissonant voices, lost socks, saucers without cups and there was no solution for restoring order. Until death rematched the pairs, all of these dear, lovely old friends were broken parts and this made Ramona restive, nervous, had her clasping and unclasping her small, competent, well-cared for hands.

No point in continuing with something that made you unhappy. She’d always believed this and besides, how could she follow her plan of fiduciary consumption if she ate out or had guests in? Not that she was selfish—just that she had established a plan, a good one, an important one and only by following it closely would she be able to accomplish what was necessary. For now at least, she’d eat her suppers alone and tonight she would have spanakopita.

From her freezer she withdrew the long, narrow box of frozen filo pastry. She’d had the forethought to soak eight of the orange bills in milk early in the day. The paper sheets of dough were ideal. She even allowed herself a blue-eyed twinkle—dough indeed. Before she began to layer the spinach, egg and feta mixture with the filo pastry she remembered the difficulty she’d had the previous night with the bills’ metallic disks. Using her silver manicure scissors—part of a tidy set in a green leather case with a zipper on three sides, she clipped the disks, cutting exactly on the edges to make no waste and then slid the luminous green flakes into a decorative tin which had once been filled with breakfast tea from Fortnum & Mason’s. The filo browned beautifully and the butter turned the dough, all the dough, caramely and crisp and it was delicious to the last scrap.

So it went for several months. Ramona refused dinner invitations and hadn’t yet found herself short of excuses. She saw her friends at lunch or later in the evening. She told her sons and daughters-in-law that she was having a little trouble with her back, nothing to worry about, that she was taking a class in decorative needlework two evenings a week, that she was seeing friends, that she was just at the end of a book so exciting she couldn’t bear to put it down—and they were satisfied to leave her alone, busy as they were themselves.

Her friends noted nothing out of the ordinary. They themselves understood that grief found its own and various expressions and that often what was needed was time alone, from time to time. They did notice, on the occasions when they met Ramona for lunch or late evening coffee that she appeared to have put on weight. Interestingly, she also seemed never to be hungry and only pushed with her fork at desserts that had formerly been favourites. But she looked well. She did look well. She carried her extra weight with ease and her skin had about it a new smoothness, an almost papery opacity that was quite lovely, if not just a little pallid. Her eyes which had been clear and startlingly blue were just as clear and certainly as blue but now they were somewhat smaller, set deeper into that smooth white face. What people had always been drawn to—Ramona’s singular focus and certitude—once again seemed to have returned and her friends were pleased for her. Ramona’s doing fine, she’ll be just fine, they agreed.

She was making good progress with her plan and the glittery luminous green disks accumulated in the Fortnum & Mason’s tin. As she expected she would, Ramona had conceived of a plan to use, if perhaps not incorporate, the attractive green disks, so like fish scales. What she had in mind was a planked salmon, cold. Instead of overlapping scales made of cucumber slices she’d use the clipped disks. If they proved indigestible glazed in a clear aspic, well, she’d have tried.

Digestion was an issue. Not to be vulgar or tasteless—when Ramona first launched her plan of consumption she worried about evacuation. How would it profit either her or her husband if all her efforts were simply flushed away? Well it wouldn’t, and for the first week, as unlike her as it was, she peered carefully into the toilet bowl at her stool, looking for signs. To her relief, there were none. Putting on weight, she was in a very real sense becoming a woman of substance and each portion of every bill was being retained. Proceed as planned, she told herself.

As surprising as it would seem to be in these days of computerized records and cross-checks and printouts, for an entire year no one at Ramona’s bank noticed her regular thousand-dollar bill withdrawals. Perhaps they assumed the wealthy are often eccentric; maybe they felt that with so very much there, what was being taken out was of no moment; it could have been that Ramona’s competent well-dressed self simply made questioning inappropriate, maybe her banking activities for that year hadn’t been scrutinized and maybe there’d been no opportunity to ask anyone any questions about these very regular and increasingly larger withdrawals. Then one day there was a coincidence of events.

The brown-suited young bank manager wished for promotion to a larger branch and in preparation for approaching the bank’s administration on this issue he determined to inform himself even more thoroughly than was his usual practice as to the status of his bank’s largest accounts. Here was where Ramona came to his attention. Laid out before him, on printed spreadsheets so comprehensive they draped over the ends of his desk like a linen table runner was her account’s five year history. Nothing untoward in the early years—just all that money—but why not, this was, after all, a bank, and in a good neighbourhood. Then the records changed a little and now only one signature appeared on cheques, only one person was making withdrawals—of course—the death—and then this rather odd pattern for the past year of weekly debits, in rather large amounts with the net result being a substantial, actually alarming decrease in the capital. The young manager called in the assistant manager, a pleasant woman in her late forties who made it a point to be out on the floor with the tellers for a good part of every day. Yes, she knew Ramona, of course she knew who she was and she would ask the tellers what they knew. Three of them were Ramona’s regulars and they were able to report that each Friday for about a year now, withdrawals of thousand dollar bills, always new, were picked up in person by the lovely dear woman who had been banking at this particular branch longer probably than any one of them had worked there. And of course, now the young manager remembered the initial visit and the request for new bills and the instructions that they were to be available weekly and he remembered that that had been a particularly busy day and he had been at meetings and was preoccupied and hadn’t had to make a special arrangement about the bills because they always had some on hand and therefore he hadn’t thought about it again.

Now here he was and what he was looking at on the financial spreadsheet could mean trouble and he wanted none. It also happened that on this day of spreadsheet examination the younger of Ramona’s two sons had come to the bank to speak to the manager about an extended line of credit to cover some small problems that would be only temporary—a small matter of being personally overextended, just temporary.

The young manager heard this request, agreed of course, to the line of credit, these things happen from time to time, and he made none of this seem hurried or unimportant. He was ready for a promotion and listened well. Then he pulled at the shirt cuffs under his brown jacket and tactfully told the younger son of the regularity of his mother’s activity and of the alarming diminishment of capital.

“Is your mother well? I mean, no disrespect intended, but have you noticed alterations in her behaviour lately? Is she, excuse me for asking this, but is she keeping company with someone new or has she recently joined with a religious group or perhaps purchased a new home or an expensive car or jewellery or, well, displayed extravagant and irrational behaviour? Please excuse me for raising this but of course it’s all entirely confidential.”

When the bank manger stopped speaking Ramona’s younger son rose from his chair, moved to the door of the manager’s office, opened it and told him thank you and left, leaving behind him unsigned, the documents which would have extended his line of credit, so agitated was he.

The two brothers met and talked and reviewed the past year as it related to their mother and neither could find any sign or indication that their mother was in any way other than she’d always been. With the exception of her having put on weight, actually rather a lot of weight, she seemed well, the same, fine, and more than that she appeared happy and she looked lovely. Their wives had noted the weight gain but they’d also commented, on more than one occasion, on her beautiful complexion, wishing its smooth fine texture for themselves. There was nothing here: she drove the same car, didn’t appear to have purchased new jewellery, hadn’t travelled nor had she purchased a new house. No, there was nothing. But that wasn’t true either. There was only apparently not anything. Something was happening to Ramona’s money. She needed their help.

Ramona had been feeling less enthusiastic about cooking and eating these last few days. Her recent monthly bank statement told her she’d done a good job; there wasn’t that much left.

Her older son phoned early in the day, using his usual brusque and jolly tone, inquiring after her health and then, his tone shifting from pleasant to urgent, told her that he and his brother must meet with her directly.

“Well not directly, dear, but this evening,” she’d answered him. “I’d like you to come for dinner, with your wives, I insist, and I’ll make us something lovely. I insist. All of you, but not the children, not tonight.”

She poached the salmon in a white wine and lemon juice bath. When it cooled she filled the cavity with a mousse using, even though it pained her to do it, a puree of those lovely orange bills, along with gelatin, and fresh dill. With a pastry brush she dissolved another envelope of gelatin in warm water and brushed it over the fish’s surface. Then she transferred it to her fine Royal Doulton fish platter and while the gelatin remained soft applied the metallic discs she’d clipped from the thousand-dollar bills and saved in the tea tin all year. The effect was dazzling. She’d never worn sequins herself although a part of her had been drawn to dresses embroidered with them, hanging there in all those dress stores, all those years, so tempting and festive, so provocative, so flashy. Like a fish in a stream, lifting above the surface in a perfect arc, flickering under the sun, a brief rainbow, a fish free and loose and moving. A fish seeking the dark, down deep where green became black, where it was quiet and still. Lovely fish. Resting fish.

A cold rice salad would work nicely with the salmon on this warm day and weren’t they all going to be surprised? What would she tell them? She couldn’t begin to think. She had no plan in mind. “Imagine,” she thought, “I’ve run out of plans. I’m swimming upstream, as it were. Me, without a plan.”

She stacked the plates and silverware and floral linen napkins on the table; they’d eat buffet style. She fluffed the rice salad in its heavy glass bowl and put the salmon at the table’s edge where they’d see it as soon as they entered the dining room. Glasses for wine, chilled white from California and now just a quick sit down before dressing.

Ramona felt her heart beating quickly. It jumped a little in her chest. There were changes coming and she’d made no plans. She leaned back against the pale brocade of the deep club chair her tall husband had favoured. She put her feet on the matching ottoman, her head supported by the down-filled pillow, her small competent, smooth hands on the arms. Her eyes closed and she thought of the glittering fish, the one on the table, the one in water, in the green, deep, dark, darker, yielding, lovely, cool water. ❚

Volume 33, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #131, published September 2014.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.